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The Morning Dispatch: What's Happening in Texas
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The Morning Dispatch: What’s Happening in Texas

Plus: A dizzying increase in opioid deaths.

Happy Thursday! 2024 presidential candidates, prepare yourselves: The Iowa State Fair has 64 new food options this year, and you’re going to have to try all of them.

Good luck with the spicy pickle cotton candy, rattlesnake corn dog, and Flaming Hot Cheeto funnel cake.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Centers for Disease Control released provisional data on Wednesday showing drug overdose deaths rose to 93,331 in 2020, a 29.4 percent increase from 2019.

  • The White House said Wednesday that the State Department, Defense Department, and Department of Homeland Security will later this month begin evacuating thousands of Afghan interpreters that worked with U.S. forces through “Operation Allies Refuge.” Once evacuated from Afghanistan, they will wait in another location while their special immigrant visas are processed.

  • Iran’s outgoing foreign minister told the Iranian parliament that the Biden administration has agreed to lift most sanctions on Iran in exchange for a return to the 2015 nuclear deal. A State Department spokesperson partially rebutted the claim, saying “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

  • Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell testified before the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday, telling lawmakers that inflation “has been higher than we’ve expected and a little bit more persistent,” but that the central bank still believes it “should partially reverse as the effects of the bottlenecks unwind.” The Fed, he added, is unlikely to make any decision about quantitative easing in the immediate future.

Texas Democratic Legislators Flee State

Time is a flat circle. The same week that Major League Baseball’s All Star Game was played in Denver, Colorado—moved from its original home outside of Atlanta because of Georgia’s implementation of a new election law back in April—we’re living through another salvo in the ongoing election integrity/voter suppression political war. This time, it’s Texas’s turn in the barrel. 

Republicans in the Lone Star State were initially set to join their Georgia and Florida compatriots in undoing some pandemic-era expansions of voting options back in May, but a group of Democrats in the Texas House walked out of the Capitol chamber, denying the legislative body a two-thirds quorum and preventing a vote on Senate Bill 7 (SB7)—which the GOP would otherwise have had the numbers to pass.

Democrats timed the gambit well, blocking the bill on the final day of Texas’ 140-day legislative session. But Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, was always going to convene a special session to get the legislation to his desk—and last week, he did. On Monday, more than 50 Democrats walked again.

Or perhaps the better word is “flew.” With the 30-day special session not expiring until August 6, simply leaving the Capitol wouldn’t accomplish Democrats’ obstructionist goals—they had to leave the state. So they chartered two private jets with House Democratic caucus funds and headed—maskless, with a case of beer—to Washington, D.C.

“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote,” the group said in a joint statement. “We are now taking the fight to our nation’s Capitol. We are living on borrowed time in Texas. We need Congress to act now to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to protect Texans—and all Americans—from the Trump Republicans’ nationwide war on democracy.”

This is not the first time state lawmakers have gotten out of dodge to essentially filibuster legislation they don’t like. Texas Democrats did so back in 2003 to fight a Republican redistricting plan, while Oregon Republicans have utilized the tactic several times in recent years to block or delay various Democratic proposals.

It’s worth pausing here to dig into the contours of the bills the Democrats are fighting. Like their forerunners in Georgia, the legislation—now labeled House Bill 3 (HB3) or Senate Bill 1 (SB1)—did include more contentious provisions at one point, including limits on Sunday early voting that critics saw as targeting black churches’ “Souls to the Polls” drives and a clause that would lower the threshold required to overturn an election due to claims of fraud. But both were removed following the Democrats’ initial walkout.

The amended bill is 47 pages long, but here’s a quick rundown of the most important provisions that remain:

  • In response to Texas’ Harris County implementing drive-through voting last year as a pandemic measure, HB3 prohibits anyone from casting a vote from “inside a motor vehicle,” unless they are “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” In that case, an “election officer shall deliver a ballot to the voter at the polling place entrance or curb.”

  • Texas’ Harris County also offered a handful of 24-hour voting sites last year. HB3 would require early voting polling places to be open at least nine hours every weekday during the early voting period, but not before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m. Counties with fewer than 1,000 people are an exception; their early polling places need only be open four hours per weekday. Polling places in counties of at least 55,000 people, however, must be open at least 12 hours per weekday during the final week of early voting, 12 hours on the final Saturday of early voting, and six hours the final Sunday of early voting.

  • HB3 strengthens legal protections for partisan poll watchers, clarifying that they cannot be removed from the polling place by a presiding judge unless they commit a violation of the election code “observed by an election judge” and they were “previously warned” that their behavior violated the law. (The previous warning provision is particularly controversial, with the Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union calling it a “one-time get out of jail free card for voter intimidation.”) Under HB3, watchers would be required to take an oath swearing not to disrupt the voting process or otherwise harass voters, and they would be legally entitled to sit or stand “near enough to see and hear the [voting] activity.”

  • Those applying for an absentee ballot under HB3 would need to provide their driver’s license or personal identification card number, or—if they don’t have either—the last four digits of their social security number. As part of a provision advocated by Democrats, HB3 would require election officials to notify voters if they filled out their absentee ballot incorrectly and provide them the opportunity to correct the error—by mail if there’s time, or in-person “not later than the sixth day after election day” if there’s not.

  • With a few exceptions, HB3 would prohibit election officials from sending absentee ballot applications unsolicited to any voter who did not request one.

  • HB3 also places stricter penalties on ballot harvesting, defining the practice as “in-person interaction with one or more voters, in the presence of the ballot or during the voting process, intended to deliver votes for a specific candidate or measure.” The measure only affects paid ballot harvesting, however, clarifying that the law does not apply to “an activity not performed in exchange for compensation or a benefit.”

Texas state Rep. James White, a Republican, told The Dispatch that, although the legislation “is not perfect,” lawmakers spent 23 hours in committee debating amendments to HB3. “I’m just reading the bills; I don’t get caught up in the conjectures, in the pejoratives, in the hype—I just read the bill,” he said, arguing “there is no suppression of anyone’s vote in this bill.” Dave Wasserman, elections analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said this week that the legislation “may be born of ill intent” but that he believes it will have a “negligible partisan impact.”

President Biden disagreed, taking aim at HB3 and other GOP-led election reforms on Tuesday in a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “In Texas,” he said, “Republican-led state legislature wants to allow partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters and imperil impartial poll workers. … They want to make it so hard and inconvenient that they hope people don’t vote at all. That’s what this is about.”

“The 21st-century Jim Crow assault is real,” Biden continued, calling on Congress to pass the For the People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. “We are facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole.”

But the president’s rhetoric was hyperbolic, and Republicans were sharply critical. “Suggesting that election integrity measures such as voter ID and prohibitions on ballot harvesting are reminiscent of Jim Crow is false, offensive, and trivializes a dark period of actual systemic racism,” said Sen. Pat Toomey, who opposed efforts to decertify the 2020 election and voted to impeach former President Trump back in February.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argued Biden’s speech was set in an “alternate universe.”

“This is our new president who promised to lower the temperature, bring America back together, and rebuild a civil society where we can dialogue as fellow citizens,” he continued. “That’s the person who is now yelling that mainstream state laws are more dangerous than two World Wars, more dangerous than poll tests and Bull Connor and actual Jim Crow segregation, and somehow analogous to the Civil War.”

The Texas Democrats, for their part, are mostly still hanging out in D.C. They met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday and Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday, who compared their “bold, courageous action” to that of Frederick Douglass and civil rights marchers in Selma. Powered by People—former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s political action committee—has reportedly raised more than $520,000 from nearly 15,000 different donors to fund the Democrats’ excursion.

But Texas state Rep. Chris Turner acknowledged Tuesday that they “can’t hold this tide back forever.” Abbott has warned that “as soon as [the lawmakers] come back in the state of Texas, they will be arrested, they will be cabined inside the Texas capitol until they get their job done.” And even if Democrats stay away until the current special session expires next month, Abbott can just convene another one. 

“We’re not naïve to the fact that [Abbott] has that tool available to him,” Rep. Diego Bernal of San Antonio told The Dispatch. “We’ll have to deal with what happens as it comes.”

Drug Overdose Deaths Spiked During Pandemic

Back in April, preliminary CDC data pleasantly surprised a lot of people when it showed the number of suicides in the United States had declined for the third straight year in 2020, down 5.6 percent from 2019. The numbers seemed to contradict the conventional wisdom that pandemic-inspired lockdowns—perhaps necessary from an epidemiological standpoint—would have massive unintended consequences for Americans’ mental health.

“A prolonged lockdown combined with a forced economic depression would inflict an immense and wide-ranging toll on public health,” former President Donald Trump said last April, making the case for a phased reopening. “This includes a sharp rise in drug abuse, alcohol abuse, suicide, heart disease, and many other dimensions of physical and mental wellbeing.”

His prediction wasn’t entirely off base. On Wednesday, the CDC released some additional data: Drug overdose deaths reached a record 93,331 last year in preliminary counting—an increase of about 21,000, or 29.4 percent, from 2019.

As has been the case in years prior, opioids continued to drive the death toll, accounting for nearly 70,000 of the overdose deaths in 2020, up from 51,000 in 2019. All but two states—South Dakota and New Hampshire—saw an increase the past year. On a percentage basis, Vermont experienced the biggest surge—57.6 percent, or 118 to 186—followed by Kentucky at 53.7 percent (1,369 to 2,104).

The trend itself is nothing new, even if the size of the increase is. Drug overdoses in the United States have steadily risen since 2000, to the point where they are now one of the leading causes of death in the country.

Dr. Kenneth Leonard, who directs the University of Buffalo’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions, told The Dispatch that last year’s pandemic restrictions likely exacerbated Americans’ problems with substance abuse.

“There’s been some preliminary analysis on the data from the CDC, and it does look like when there were COVID restrictions death rates increased. And when restrictions were taken off, death rates went down,” Leonard said. “We don’t know to the exact extent that pandemic restrictions influence overdose deaths, but we know they are connected.”

Overdoses likely aren’t the only unfortunate side effect of the past year and a half, as 2020 also saw troubling increases in crime. Preliminary FBI data show murder rates rose by at least 25 percent nationally and aggravated assault increased by about 10 percent. 

“Opioid use is not usually associated with violence,” Leonard said. “However, we’ve also seen for a number of years that increased use of alcohol, cocaine, or methamphetamine do have a connection to a rise in violent crime. But the increases that we’ve seen over the past year were largely due to opioids, so I would say that the increase in violence is probably not being fueled by substance abuse.”

Earlier this week, President Biden announced his intent to nominate Dr. Rahul Gupta—West Virginia’s health commissioner from 2015 to 2018—as his administration’s director of national drug control policy. If confirmed, Gupta will be the first medical doctor to hold the position since it was created during the Reagan administration.

Worth Your Time

  • The Department of Justice’s inspector general released a long-awaited report on Wednesday looking into the FBI’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse by former USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. It’s as difficult a read as it is important. “Despite the extraordinarily serious nature of the allegations and the possibility that Nassar’s conduct could be continuing,” the report reads, “senior officials in the FBI Indianapolis Field Office failed to respond to the Nassar allegations with the utmost seriousness and urgency that they deserved and required, made numerous and fundamental errors when they did respond to them, and violated multiple FBI policies.” In a statement, the FBI called the behavior of certain employees described in the report “inexcusable” and a “discredit to the organization,” adding that the Bureau has “taken affirmative steps to ensure … those responsible for the misconduct and breach of trust no longer work FBI matters.”

  • In The Atlantic, Uyghur poet Tahir Hamut Izgil recounts his experience living through—and escaping—a genocide against his people in Xinjiang. In 2017, Izgil and his family arrived in the United States; many of his friends and neighbors were less fortunate. “Merhaba and I were both silent for a moment. We lay side by side on the bed. I turned out the light,” he writes, recalling the period in which Uyghurs were being detained in mass arrests. “‘If they arrest me, don’t lose yourself. Don’t make inquiries about me, don’t go looking for help, don’t spend money trying to get me out. This time isn’t like any time before. They are planning something dark. There is no notifying families or inquiring at police stations this time. So don’t trouble yourself with that. Keep our family affairs in order, take good care of our daughters, let life go on as if I were still here. I’m not afraid of prison. I am afraid of you and the girls struggling and hurting when I’m gone. So I want you to remember what I’m saying.’”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Scott Lincicome’s latest Capitolism (🔒) looks at the difference between corporate and state power, and why he’s much more concerned about the latter. “Corporations can be plenty powerful, too, and even affect your livelihood in ways superficially similar to some of the regulatory actions noted above,” he writes. “From there, however, the differences between corporate power and state power are undeniably massive. No company today can lawfully and publicly deprive you of life or liberty. No company—without state backing, at least—can forcibly prevent you from seeking or creating alternatives when you don’t like (or have been denied) its product or terms. Refuse that company and you can lose business, but in almost all cases—including Big Tech—you have other options (and potentially future ones who see an opportunity for new customers and profits). Refuse the state’s terms, by contrast, and you eventually go to jail.”

  • On yesterday’s Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, David, Jonah, and Chris Stirewalt examine the moral and political implications of United States foreign policy toward Cuba, the deadly consequences of vaccine hesitancy, Texas Democrats’ trip to DC, and whether bills targeting Big Tech will have unintended consequences.

  • In a piece for the website, Jack Goldsmith uses two recent moves by the Justice Department—its decision not to seize reporter communications in leak investigations and its cessation of actions against John Bolton for the publication of his memoir—to show that the government “cannot or will not stop leaks about the classified secrets that matter, and yet imposes a broad prior restraint on the publication of unclassified information vital to public debate.” “This central paradox of the American secrecy system has a single root cause: massive overclassification of information by a tumefied intelligence bureaucracy,” he writes.

  • As the U.N. Human Rights Council wrapped up its session this week, it issued a resolution against Eritrea for its involvement in the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. But Eritrea is a member of the council. Emma Rogers explains how that ends up happening often enough to tarnish the U.N.’s human rights initiatives. 

  • U.S. troops in Iraq have been subject to rocket and drone fire from Shiite militias in Iraq in recent weeks. Charlotte reports that those militias are backed by Iran, and she delves into Iran’s recent efforts to meddle in Iraq.

Let Us Know

Many of the Republican election bills we’ve reported on this year have operated in an uneasy space between questionable intent and defensible policy—introduced as a result of wildly disproportionate constituent concerns about supposed massive 2020 voter fraud, but largely reasonable in their goals of making pandemic voting practices temporary rather than permanent. What do you make of this? Are these bills “all’s well that ends well,” or fruit of a poisoned Stop the Steal tree?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), Tripp Grebe (@tripper_grebe), Emma Rogers (@emw_96), Price St. Clair (@PriceStClair1), Jonathan Chew (@JonathanChew19), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).